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‘Under Stalin, Repression Was So Severe That Soviet Gulags Held 22% Of the World’s Prison Population’

Claim

The United States has 22 percent of the world's prison population or inmates.

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Decontextualized

Reporting

On April 8 2021, Imgur user “superscout0233” shared the following meme with a fakeout ending, initially stating that “under [Joseph] Stalin,” the Soviet Union’s gulags held 22 percent of the world’s prison population — before adding text indicating that statistic was not about the Soviet Union but was, in fact, true for the United States in 2021:

The Post

Above and beneath a propaganda-poster style image of Stalin, text read:

Under Stalin, repression was so severe that Soviet Gulags held 22% of the world’s entire prison population

Just kidding, that’s in the United States today

That post was simply titled “Oppression,” and it did not include any contextual information about Stalin-era Soviet gulags or the United States’ rate of incarceration in 2021. The discussion in the comments took issue with its perceived faint praise of Stalin in comparison, with some claiming that Soviet gulags and American prisons were “apples and oranges.”

Who is Stalin?

Joseph Stalin was a Soviet Union leader who remains commonly referenced in political contexts, generally in the context of his dictatorship.

He also forms the basis for several persistent memes. In August 2019, we fact-checked a meme comparing Stalin’s historical legacy with American democratic socialism:

Was Dictator Joseph Stalin Once a Hip, Young Democratic Socialist?

Comparisons with Stalin are commonplace to the level of a being a trope; Stalin is mentioned on TV Tropes’ entry for “Godwin’s Law” for this reason:

Godwin’s Law, also known as “Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies,” is an “Internet law” describing the tendency of people on the Internet to say outrageous things to win arguments. Originated by Richard Sexton, it’s named after Mike Godwin, longtime attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and at one time for the Wikimedia Foundation as well), who popularized the law in 1990 in this form:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

[…]

The original “Godwin’s Law” only spoke of Internet users’ tendency to make frivolous Nazi comparisons, but the utter failure of those comparisons to work is now also enshrined in “Internet law” … The Internet being a place where no one is allowed to concede an argument, users have tried to find various workarounds where they can use their desperate rhetorical devices without violating Godwin’s Law. They’ve tried:

  • Not mentioning Hitler or Nazis directly (e.g. “you know who else got rejected by an art school?”), thinking the law is about invoking Nazis’ names rather than their ideas.
  • Referencing other mass-murdering dictators, often Communists like Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot. This doesn’t even really avoid a Nazi comparison because the thinking is the same that leads to the Commie Nazis trope. In fact, the invocation of a communist leader in this sense is itself worthy of a Nazi comparison, given how right-wing extremists are very prone to comparing their opponents to evil communists in a technique known as “red-baiting”. If you don’t want communists, you could try terrorists like al-Qaeda or Daesh.

The axiom does not apply to actual Nazis or literal Nazi ideology.

What Is a Gulag?

First, “Gulag” is an acronym:

Gulag, acronym of Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey, (Russian: “Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps”), system of Soviet labour camps and accompanying detention and transit camps and prisons that from the 1920s to the mid-1950s housed the political prisoners and criminals of the Soviet Union. At its height, the Gulag imprisoned millions of people. The name Gulag had been largely unknown in the West until the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956 (1973), whose title likens the labour camps scattered through the Soviet Union to an island chain.

A system of forced-labour camps was first inaugurated by a Soviet decree of April 15, 1919, and underwent a series of administrative and organizational changes in the 1920s, ending with the founding of the Gulag in 1930 under the control of the secret police, OGPU (later, the NKVD and the KGB). The Gulag had a total inmate population of about 100,000 in the late 1920s, when it underwent an enormous expansion coinciding with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. By 1936 the Gulag held a total of 5,000,000 prisoners, a number that was probably equaled or exceeded every subsequent year until Stalin died in 1953. Besides rich or resistant peasants arrested during collectivization, persons sent to the Gulag included purged Communist Party members and military officers, German and other Axis prisoners of war (during World War II), members of ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty, Soviet soldiers and other citizens who had been taken prisoner or used as slave labourers by the Germans during the war, suspected saboteurs and traitors, dissident intellectuals, ordinary criminals, and many utterly innocent people who were hapless victims of Stalin’s purges.

History.com maintained an entry on Gulags, explaining:

… The notorious prisons, which incarcerated about 18 million people throughout their history, operated from the 1920s until shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953. At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion—others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Russian Communist Party, took control of the Soviet Union. When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, Joseph Stalin propelled his way to power and became dictator.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers.

From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion. Stalin viewed the camps as an efficient way to boost industrialization in the Soviet Union and access valuable natural resources such as timber, coal and other minerals … The Gulag started to weaken immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953. Within days, millions of prisoners were released.

On NPS.gov, the National Parks Service for some reason offers a “Gulag Fact Sheet” [PDF], which provided figures about the Soviet prison population under Lenin and Stalin:

  • The camp population grew from 179,000 in 1929 to 2,468,524 in 1953 (reaching its height in 1950 with 2,525,146 inmates).
  • Perhaps 18 million persons in total were incarcerated in the Gulag in this period.
  • While numbers are sketchy, of the much larger number of gulag inmates plus exiled “special settlers” and labor colonists (often youth detention facilities) that totaled 26 million in these years, perhaps 1.5 million perished. It is important to remember, however, that in most years more people were amnestied from the Gulag than died in it. Excepting the brutal war years, the most common experience of the Gulag was surviving it.

At the end of the short document, a section indicated that the “inefficiency of the Gulag and the resistance of its inmates convinced Stalin’s successors to scale it back dramatically following the dictator’s death.” In July 2018, the BBC reported the death of a “rare [surviving] witness” to the Gulags, and included some of the man’s firsthand experience in their article.

Because of this history, the term “gulag” in modern parlance has come to be used to describe widespread incarceration and poor conditions within said system.

The United States Prison Population in 2021

In the meme referenced here, the initial mention of Stalin and gulags was a red herring or misdirection. The actual emphasis of the meme was a claim about the U.S. prison population: That 22 percent of the world’s prisoners were incarcerated in the United States.

As noted in previous fact-checks, the United States accounts for about four percent of the world’s population in total. For every 100 people of Earth, four are American — if 22 percent (or nearly a quarter and more than a fifth) of the world’s prisoners were imprisoned in the United States, that particular proportion suggested that Americans were incarcerated at a far higher pace than citizens of peer nations.

Locating the “22 percent of the world’s prison population” statistic’s source was fairly straightforward — the figure appeared in a Google “featured snippet” in April 2021:

united states percentage of prison population 2021

Anyone who searched the Imgur meme’s claims was likely to come across the precise cited figure emphasized by Google. However, the linked citation was a Wikipedia entry, “United States incarceration rate,” which began (as of April 9 2021):

In September 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

At the end of 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit organization for decarceration, estimated that in the United States, about 2,298,300 people were incarcerated out of a population of 324.2 million. This means that 0.7% of the population was imprisoned. Of those who were incarcerated, about 1,316,000 people were in state prison, 615,000 in local jails, 225,000 in federal prisons, 48,000 in youth correctional facilities, 34,000 in immigration detention camps, 22,000 in involuntary commitment, 11,000 in territorial prisons, 2,500 in Indian Country jails, and 1,300 in United States military prisons.

A citation appeared next to “22 percent of the world’s prisoners,” and that linked to a November 2013 International Centre for Prison Studies report [PDF], which was called, “World Prison Population List.” In the paper’s introduction, its author noted that compiling precise proportions of incarceration globally was confounded in part by “Captive Nations,” or nation-states under “undemocratic” rule:

A number of points need to be noted. Figures are not complete, notably for China, and they are not available for Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Somalia and North Korea (D.P.R.K.). Again, the information does not relate to the same date. Comparability is further compromised by different practice in different countries, for example with regard to whether all pre-trial detainees and juveniles are held under the authority of the prison administration, and also whether the prison administration is responsible for psychiatrically ill offenders and offenders being detained for treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction. People held in a form of custody which is not under the authority of the prison administration are usually omitted from official national totals.

A “Key Points” section on the report’s first page added:

  • More than 10.2 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, mostly as pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners or as sentenced prisoners. Almost half of these are in the United States (2.24m), Russia (0.68m) or China (1.64m sentenced prisoners). In addition at least 650,000 are reported to be in pre-trial or ‘administrative’ detention in China and 150,000 in North Korea (D.P.R.K.); if these were included the world total would be more than 11 million.
  • The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, 716 per 100,000 of the national population, followed by St Kitts & Nevis (714), Seychelles (709), U.S. Virgin Is. (539), Barbados (521), Cuba (510), Rwanda (492), Anguilla – U.K. (487), Belize (476), Russian Federation (475), British Virgin Is. (460) and Sint Maarten – Netherlands (458).
  • However, more than half of countries and territories (54%) have rates below 150 per 100,000.
  • The world population at the beginning of 2013 was about 7.1 billion (from United Nations figures); set against the world prison population of 10.2 million[;] this produces a world prison population rate of 144 per 100,000 (155 per 100,000 if set against a world prison population of 11 million).

In the report, the author estimated a total global prison population of 10.2 million as of November 2013; 2.24 million of that figure were detainees in the United States. Of 10.2 million, 2.24 million is 21.96 percent — reasonably rounded up to the 22 percent figure.

“United States” appeared twice in the report, both times quoted in the bullet points above. On the next page, a table contrasted rates across continents:

us 22 percent of world prison population

In the “North America” table, the “Prison population total” appeared, alongside a date (presumably for when the figures were collected), the total national population, the source for the prison population figures (the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the United States), and a per capita figure — the adjusted number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens.

On that table, Canada’s per capita rate was 118, Bermuda’s was 417, and Greenland’s was 301. The United States was the highest on the list, with 716 people incarcerated for every 100,000 people as of December 31 2011 — however, that figure was nearly ten years old by April 2021.

Wikipedia’s entry served as the basis for the Google featured snippet, and presumably the (undated) meme, and it was predicated on a 2013 report, the tenth edition of the report. The International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPE) apparently published an eleventh edition of the report, as well as a twelfth edition in late 2018:

Based on published prison population numbers the total worldwide prison population stands at 10.74 million. However, the total is well in excess of 11 million if numbers estimated to be held in detention centres in China and in prisons camps in North Korea are included.

There are more than 2.1 million prisoners in the United States of America. China holds almost 1.7 million prisoners (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention and other forms of detention). Brazil has almost 700,000 prisoners, the Russian Federation almost 600,000, and there are around 400,000 prisoners in both India and Thailand. Indonesia, Turkey and Iran each have around a quarter of a million prisoners.

A rough calculation based on the news release of the incomplete figure of 10.74 million prisoners worldwide and “more than” 2.1 million prisoners in the United States alone produced a slightly lower percentage — 19.55 percent, or roughly 20 percent. That proportion was not markedly lower than the 22 percent figure presented by Google’s featured snippets in April 2021, but again, that snippet was based on data primarily from 2011 and 2012.

ICPE linked to the complete twelfth edition of “World Prison Population List” [PDF]; the “Key Points” section was again listed on page two, and again provided proportions between nations with high rates of incarceration. The global figure of 10.74 million and the United States figure of 2.1 million was reiterated, and one of the points reported:

The countries with the highest prison population rate – that is, the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population – are the United States (655 per 100,000), followed by El Salvador (604), Turkmenistan (552), U.S. Virgin Islands (542), Thailand (526), Cuba (510), Maldives (499), Northern Mariana Islands – U.S.A. (482), British Virgin Islands (470), Rwanda (464), Bahamas (438), Seychelles (437), Grenada (435), St Vincent and the Grenadines (426), Guam – U.S.A. (404) and Russian Federation (402).

A table similar to the one in the 2013 report included contextual figures in a “Trend Information” column. In it, a peak of 739 per 100,000 prisoners in the United States in 2005 appeared, alongside a dip to 672 as of 2015:

world prison population 22 united states

Once again, the United States topped the list of prisoners per capita at a rate of 655 for every 100,000 Americans — down slightly from 716 per 100,000 in 2011, or a drop of about 8.5 percent. We attempted to find a cohesive figure for the total number of people incarcerated in the United States in 2020 or 2021, but those figures tended to be broken down by the number in jail or the number of federal inmates.

A February 2021 Pew Research report noted that the prison population began to decrease during the administration of Barack Obama (ten percent), dropping further under Donald Trump’s presidency (five percent):

The federal prison population, which declined for the first time in decades under President Barack Obama, fell further during the administration of President Donald Trump.

The number of federal prisoners sentenced to more than a year behind bars decreased by 5% (or 7,607 inmates) between 2017, Trump’s first year in office, and the end of 2019, the most recent year for which final data is available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Preliminary figures for 2020 show that the decline continued – and even accelerated – during Trump’s last full year in office, meaning that the overall reduction in inmates during his tenure will likely exceed 5% once final data is available. Part of the decrease in prisoners in 2020 may have been attributable to policy changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the end of that summary, Pew added that mass incarceration began increasing under the Reagan administration in the 1990s, but that the Clinton administration presided over the biggest increase in prisoners:

… presidents can help set federal criminal justice policies, and those policies can affect the prison population. Ronald Reagan signed into law several measures that increased federal criminal penalties, including one that eliminated parole in the federal prison system. The number of sentenced federal inmates rose by 78% (or 16,539 prisoners) during Reagan’s eight years in office, the largest percentage increase for any administration on record.

In absolute numbers, the largest increase in federal prisoners occurred under Bill Clinton. The number of sentenced inmates rose by 38,769 (or 56%) under Clinton, who signed into law a major crime bill that increased funding for prisons and authorized 100,000 additional police officers (though many of the law’s provisions focused on state correctional systems, rather than the federal system). Current President Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time and helped write the law that Clinton signed in 1994.

Proportionally, the United States remained at the top of prisoners per 100,000 citizens in the most recent iteration of the report we located. However, the 22 percent figure was from the tenth edition of the source data cited, and in the two subsequent editions, the figure had decreased to just under 20 percent.

Summary

An April 2021 Imgur meme asserted that the United States had 22 percent “of the world’s entire prison population,” a figure that was stark in contrast with the States’ overall share of the world population at around four percent. Google’s featured snippet emphasized the 22 percent figure in April 2021, citing a Wikipedia entry (which in turn derived its estimates from the 2013 ICPE report). The ICPE published two subsequent reports with updated figures, the most recent of which appeared to have been published in late 2018. According to that iteration, the figure fell from around 22 percent to around 20 percent. As such, we’ve rated the claim Decontextualized, due to threads of nuance not present in the popular meme.